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Storming heaven in West Virginia


IN WEST VIRGINIA, where politicians have long taken good care of coal interests while most ordinary people scratch to hold onto what little they have, a new voice is being heard.

Denise Giardina, 48, who was raised in a coal camp and wrote two acclaimed novels about the fierce struggles in the coal fields, is waging a long-shot campaign for governor, representing the new Mountain Party. Part of her message to West Virginians is that the coal industry, in decline but still potent, is, plain and simple, "the enemy."

"They came in here," she declares, "and stole our land, killed a hundred-thousand miners, polluted our streams, ground our roads into dust with their coal trucks - and then they have the nerve to tell us that they should be able to destroy our mountains because they have created jobs. Well, the Mafia creates jobs, the Colombian drug cartel creates jobs, and pimps create jobs. And they all create jobs the same way - by exploiting the people they employ."

The woman who has taken on King Coal is far from a household name in the state, but her followers collected 19,000 signatures, more than enough to put her on the November ballot against the Republican governor, Cecil Underwood, and a longtime Democratic Congressman, Bob Wise. They overcame a state law loaded against them - it barred signers from voting in the Democratic or Republican primaries - and a stiff court challenge from the Democratic Party, anxious to keep her out of the race.

Now Wise is catching flak from the press for refusing to debate her. Giardina, 48, is expected to capture more Democratic than Republican votes. Wise is trying to pin a "minor candidate" label on her, fearful that in a close race with Underwood, she could cost him the election.

A midsummer poll showed Giardina the choice of only 3 percent of regular voters, but an internal Underwood campaign poll supposedly shows her in double digits. She needs to win only 1 percent of the vote to open up every state and local office to the Mountain Party in future elections.

"Here is the hard truth no other candidate will talk about," Giardina says: "West Virginia is poor, because West Virginians don't own West Virginia. Much of our land, our timber, our minerals are owned by outside corporations, who don't pay their fair share of property taxes and cart their profits out of state." Corporations she names include Norfolk-Southern, CSX, Georgia-Pacific and American Electric Power.

Giardina wants these absentee landowners to pay their fair share of property taxes plus an extra tax if they own more than 10,000 acres, as well as a tax on the lucrative coal and natural-gas royalties they receive.

If you walked into a fund-raiser for Giardina, you would never guess that she was the candidate. She appears unremarkable, a quiet, polite, unassuming woman. She says she hates political schmoozing and has to grit her teeth to do it.

But she seems shy only until she gets up to speak. Then she skewers her main opponents with no-nonsense wit. She has said Underwood "governs like someone lying beside the swimming pool," and described Wise as "a good advertisement for term limits." Speaking generally, she says coal has "left us a legacy of spineless politicians."

She is striking a chord in some voters. Doris Magan, 57, a disabled coal miner who works as a Charleston paralegal, volunteered to work in a political campaign for the first time after hearing Giardina speak. A lifelong Democrat, Magan believes both major parties "have been bought out by the big corporations." She likes Giardina because "she is not a career politician" and "speaks from the heart. That's the kind of person I want taking care of my interest."

West Virginia has long been a virtual one-party state, a Democratic. But appearances can deceive. Many Democratic officials, like their brethren in the South, are conservative, and some West Virginians see the two parties as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In the 1996 gubernatorial race, Democratic leaders abandoned Charlotte Pritt, whose liberal populism troubled them, after she won the primary over their more conservative choice, enabling the Republican Underwood to carry the statehouse.

Left-wing Democrats felt betrayed, and a few founded the Mountain Party. Giardina is its first candidate, and one of the state's first office-seekers to test the depth of voter disillusionment with the major parties and career politicians.

Giardina's passionate populism is homegrown. She grew up in the state's southern coal fields, the granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants. One grandfather managed a company store. Her other grandfather was a coal miner, as were two uncles, one of whom died of black-lung disease. Her father kept the books for a coal company. When she was 12, he lost his job and moved the family near Charleston.

Giardina's first novel about labor-capital battles in the coal fields was "Storming Heaven." Brilliantly imagined, the story culminates in the historic Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, when 10,000 coal miners confronted 3,000 armed men hired by the coal companies. Her sequel, "The Unquiet Earth," brings the southern coal fields story up to the 1990s.

While she was writing the latter book and living in Durham, N.C., the United Mine Workers of America were engaged in an epic, 10-month strike against Pittston Coal Co. in Virginia.

Giardina began driving to Virginia to join the strikers and sympathizers in the community. "Every day, people were sitting down in front of [coal] trucks," she recalls. She joined the civil disobedience and was arrested twice. Later, she helped college students raise some $50,000 for the strike.

But Giardina broke with the UMW recently on the greatest controversy in the state, a form of strip mining called mountaintop removal. Using giant earth-moving machines, coal companies have leveled dozens of peaks in southern West Virginia to get at the seams of coal within. The operation involves month upon month of blasting and shoving massive heaps of rubble into hollows and creeks.

Critics rail against the loss of ground water and wildlife, nearby towns made uninhabitable, and the loss of all that the mountains mean to West Virginians.

The coal companies maintain that they reclaim the mountaintops, that the flattened land is needed for industrial and other development, and that such mining means high-paying jobs (West Virginia coal miners earn $51,000 annually on average.)

Last year, a federal judge placed restrictions on mountaintop removal, lighting a political firestorm in the state. The job-minded UMW sided with the coal companies. The Underwood administration has taken pains to circumvent the ruling.

Feelings run so high in southern West Virginia that Giardina says she would not feel safe campaigning there door to door. She notes that last summer, a group marching in tribute to the miners who fought at Blair Mountain was set upon by a mob who saw them as foes of mountaintop removal.

Giardina is characteristically blunt about mountaintop removal. She wants it stopped. "You don't flatten the Alps, you don't flatten the Rockies, and you don't flatten the Appalachians," she says.

She condemns Wise and Underwood because they "talk about 'responsible mountaintop mining' as if such a mongrel creature could possibly exist, as if you could desecrate a church responsibly or run a concentration camp responsibly."

By nearly all accounts, the supply of coal in West Virginia will run out in a few decades, and Giardina says it is high time that efforts begin to diversify the economy. She wants tax breaks that now go to the coal industry given to small business. She would use the right of eminent domain to take absentee-owned sites for publicly financed economic development.

Giardina has some other big ideas: development of alternative agriculture, including free-range and organic farming, and promotion of alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power and hydrogen fuel cells.

"If I could buy a reasonable amount of radio and television ads, I could win this race." Giardina declares. "The excitement for the other two candidates just isn't there." But so far her slim campaign budget has permitted no big media buys. On the other hand, the court fight over her petition drive brought her lots of free publicity.

How much of a mark Giardina will make in November is anybody's guess. But her campaign manager, Vince George, says that already she has made her opponents talk about hitherto neglected issues such as gambling, school consolidation and prescription-drug costs, and she is pressing them to say what comes after coal.

Giardina may be on her way to forcing West Virginia politicians to deal with the "hard truths," even as she establishes the Mountain Party as a new factor in West Virginia politics.

Peter Slavin is a free-lance jour nalist in Oakton, Va.

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